Four ways to be seen as a leader, even when you’re not in charge

In the past few years, I’ve worked with organizations as they identify and train emerging leaders. The goal is twofold: to let promising people know their contributions are valued and to increase their chances of success if they’re promoted to management.

So, what does it take to be considered an emerging leader? What are these people doing that sets them apart, not just in the eyes of their bosses, but also their peers?

It’s more than just being a workhorse or a “company person.” It’s really about influence; doing the kinds of things that cause people to feel better about the work when you’re on the team, and to choose to follow you when you offer suggestions or direction.

You may not want to be a manager, and that’s just fine.

But if you want to be a leader, a true person of influence, whether or not you’re in charge, here are four actions that get you there:

Offer solutions — with skin in the game.

Workplaces contain plenty of people who can describe problems. In detail. To anyone who will listen. They’re apt to include the words “somebody oughtta” in their complaints. Sadly, even though they may be right about the problems, their approach leaves them looking like whiners instead of winners.

By contrast, influential employees identify problems, take them to people in power, offer practical, thoughtful solutions, note their own role in whatever mess needs mending, and offer to take part in the repair work they suggest.  Telling your bosses that all’s not well can be risky when done wrong, but rewarding when you prove yourself to be the “loyal opposition.”

Think strategically — and keep learning.

If you’re seen as operating from a small silo while ignoring the organization’s big picture, you won’t be taken seriously. There’s nothing wrong with looking out for yourself or your team, but if you don’t also recognize the organization’s strategic goals, don’t pay attention to the business climate, and don’t align your ambitions with the company’s, you’re less likely to be seen as a leader.

At the same time, if you’re not interested in learning new skills as your business evolves or keeping updated on industry developments, your colleagues won’t count on you to do more than stagnate in the status quo while others lead change.

Share resources and information, but don’t be a doormat.

Research by Wharton’s Adam Grant says that “givers” — people who automatically look for ways to help others — tend to do well at work, unless they are so self-sacrificing that they’re taken advantage of and fail to effectively manage their own time and workload.  But when they get the balance right, they rock. Here’s how he described it in an interview with Fast Company about his book, “Give and Take”:

Leaders with a “taker” mentality often see others as a threat and avoid sharing their knowledge and expertise. “Giver” leaders indulge none of these fears and choose to be extremely generous with their time, expertise, and helping others succeed.

Extensive research reveals that people who give their time and knowledge to help colleagues and subordinates this way end up earning more promotions and raises. And when givers put a group’s interest ahead of themselves, they build much deeper relationships, and often become highly valued within their own organization.

Shift your emotional intelligence into high gear.

Influential employees are calm in the storm and resilient when things get tough. They read situations and people well, communicate with empathy and collaborate with ease. They don’t generate needless conflict and respond constructively when conflict is inevitable. These are hallmarks of emotional intelligence, which research shows is not only key to leadership success, but can be upgraded, if you choose to work at it.

In my newsroom, I liked to say that my goal was to hire “grownups of any age” — low drama, low maintenance, but high on talent, integrity and responsibility.  When that’s your reputation, you become a person of influence, regardless of your title.

You simply lead from wherever you are.

* * *

Leading from where you are may sound like it takes a lot of work.  True, but it pays dividend, too.  I explain in this companion podcast:

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  • lexalexander

    Regarding “drama,” although it’s not a manager’s role to be a doctor, managers should be aware that a nontrivial amount of drama stems not just from normal fear of perceived threats but from undiagnosed mental disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder (he said from experience). If you suspect that YOU might have such a disorder, seek immediate help through your PCP or your employer’s Employee Assistance Plan. If you suspect someone else with whom you work might, go directly to HR, do not pass go, do not collect $200, because you’ve just walked up to the edge of a legal minefield.

  • Fmengineers Ghani

    nice post

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  • Amir

    I am a team leader in a sales company.
    I am feeling no appreciation from my team.
    I asked them for a feedback about what could I do better to coach them but they said nothing.
    I ask four simple questions after each field ride and I get always the same answer for question #three which is nothing.
    The four questions are:
    1- what was our objective.
    2- did we achieve it.
    3- what could we do better
    4- what are the next action steps.

    I start to feel hopeless with my team.
    I asked my manager if I am doing wrong things.
    He told me no but this is normal all over the teams.

    I am looking to be unforgettable to my team , I learnt a lot of thoughts from the podcasts in App Store.

    Could you please advise?